L’Arbre aux doigts tordus / The Vampire Tree (Paul Halter)

By Paul Halter

First published: Masque, France, 1996.  Translation: Locked Room International, 2016, as The Vampire Tree

3 stars

Halter - doigts tordus.jpgA small English village.  Witches!  Dead children!

Hang on – haven’t I just read this?

Newlywed Patricia Sheridan moves to the Suffolk village of Lightwood.  Ironically, she’s frightened of bright lights, and of trees.  Or one tree in particular…

The one whose twisted branches tap on her bedroom window, and cause her bad dreams.

Buried under the tree is a 16th-century vampiress, hanged after slitting the throats of village children.  Meanwhile, a maniac is brutally murdering the village children.

In the 19th century, Eric Sheridan was found strangled at the foot of the tree – but apparently no human could have done it.  The murderer left no footprints in the snow.  Did the tree strangle him, just as in Lavinia’s premonitory dream? The same dream Patricia dreamt…

Halter - doigts tordus 2.jpgAnd could beautiful, half-Transylvanian Patricia, who recoils from crucifixes, possibly be … a vampire?

I’d expected a disaster.  The Puzzle Doctor pans it.  TomCat very much disliked it.  JJ says it’s for completists only.  And Brad hates it.

Four of the finest mystery bloggers are unanimous.

Translator John Pugmire himself only gave it a single star (out of four) back on the old Yahoo Groups list.

The only people who like it are Soupart, Fooz and Bourgeois (authors of Chambres closes, crimes impossibles, a 487-page analysis of some 750 impossible crimes):

[And cue the sound of puzzle enthusiasts writing frenzied emails to Locked Room International, demanding its translation sur-le-champ.]


Non seulement Paul Halter surprend toujours son public, mais encore parvient-il à remporter, haut la main, ce challenge: toujours plus fort dans la surenchère de la mystification!

Dans son quinzième roman, il ne faillit point à la règle.  Si les brillants ouvrages précédents captivaient le lecteur par l’ingéniosité du problème impossible, cet Arbre…ajoute une nouvelle dimension au talent du Dickson Carr français: cette ambiance fantastique et glauque n’est pas sans rappeler un certain…Stephen King!

The reason for the lack of popularity: People judge it as a detective story, when Halter’s using the detective story to tell a dark Gothic Hammer Horror-type story, with vampires, serial killers, sexual obsession, and insanity.  And blood.  Lots and lots of blood.

One of the Milk Marketing Board’s less successful ventures.

Halter - Vampire Tree.jpgThe solution to the impossible strangulation in the 19th century is disappointing (and generally considered a cheat), but it causes two tragedies, one in the past, one in the present.

Here, for once, what happens to the characters is more important than the mystery.

As a mystery, admittedly, it’s not Halter’s finest hour.  The device for narrowing suspects down to seven doesn’t hold water.  All seven are at a dinner party; no murder is committed that night; therefore one of them must be guilty.  No, it simply means that the murderer didn’t strike that night.

I guessed who the murderer was; few of the other characters were sufficiently developed to make an interesting killer.  Hir scheme for diverting suspicion is an old one.  As for the motive – gore blimey and bloody hell!

It’s certainly not Halter’s best – try La 7è hypothèse, Le diable de Dartmoor, L’image trouble, or La chambre du fou – but it’s not his worst, either. (La malédiction de Barberousse, Les 7 miracles du crime, La lettre qui tue)


  • Lavinia’s diary describes murder in past in simultaneous narrative – c.f. L’image trouble, Le crime de Dédale, La chambre d’Horus
  • Greek mythology motif: sculptor makes statue of Patricia as Baucis


Lightwood est vraiment un charmant village et Roger Sheridan, qui vient d’épouser Patricia, est heureux de lui faire connaître sa maison de famille, vieille de plusieurs siècles, et si peu modifiée au cours des années, où passe encore l’ombre de la belle Lavinia, qui mourut désespérée d’avoir perdu l’homme qu’elle aimait…

Patricia serait parfaitement heureuse à Lightwood s’il n’y avait pas ce cauchemar qu’elle a fait le premier jour, cet arbre si menaçant, ce vieux tremble aux branches tordues qui viennent frôler la fenêtre les jours de grand vent.

L’arbre a une histoire, la maison a ses fantômes…et le village ses sanglants problèmes: voilà qu’on y tue des enfants de la plus horrible façon, en les égorgeant !

Tout le talent de Paul Halter dans ce roman où le mystère voisine avec le fantastique.

The Upfold Witch (Josephine Bell)

By Josephine Bell

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1956

3 stars

Bell - Upfold Witch.jpgAnother of Josephine Bell’s competent, rather dull mysteries, aimed at an undemanding, middle-class, middle-aged, middle-brow, middle England readership.

Prologue: Farmer George Cutfield and butcher Paisley watch young author Julian Farnham carry beautiful young Celia Wainwright into her house.

When he’s gone, they find her dead – and they know what they have to do next…

Once you’ve read the prologue, you’re about 100 pages ahead of the game.  Mystery: who needs it?

Ten years later, nice, retired Dr. Frost and his nice Scottish wife Jeanie buy a house in the Sussex Weald village of Upfold.

They find a skeleton under the hen-run – minus the skull, but with a stake through the rib-cage.

Celia was married to the previous owner – and she disappeared a decade ago.  And the villagers think she was a witch.

A cleaner’s son fell under her spell, and hanged himself.  A butcher’s boy drowned in the river.  And her dog killed a farmer’s sheep – or was it Celia in were-form?

Gosh!  Do you think those two people we met in the prologue beheaded her to stop her rising from the dead?

The Frosts’ nice daughter Judy provides the obligatory romance.  She falls in love with Farnham.  He was having an affair with Celia, and may have killed her.

“Oh, dear,” say all the nice ladies who’ve borrowed the book from the lending library; “I do hope it all works out!”

Dr. Frost and his wife potter around, gossiping.  (Fans of Christie’s Hallowe’en Party will love it.)  Fortunately, he has a pathologist friend in London.

Whodunit becomes obvious – and is revealed – several chapters before the end; it’s the most likely suspect, and there’s no ingenuity, or memorable clues.

Excellent for those who don’t want to tax their brains, but would rather know most of the plot from the opening chapter, and not have a surprise solution jangle their nerves.

The politics of detective fiction

For JJ, who wondered what Henry Wade’s politics were.

From left to right:


  • C. St. John Sprigg


  • Julian Symons


  • Nicholas Blake
  • G.D.H. and M. Cole


  • Leslie Charteris (half-Chinese; in The Saint Plays with Fire, he argues the Establishment – business, Conservative politics, and the army – is Fascist)
  • E.R. Punshon (Dickensian liberal, attacked Nazis from 1933/34 on, published by Gollancz)
  • Ellery Queen (Halfway House!)


  • H.C. Bailey (with religious zeal)
  • Anthony Boucher (wrote article on why the detective story was liberal)
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Anthony Gilbert
  • Reginald Hill
  • E.C.R. Lorac (anti-Mosley)
  • Ngaio Marsh (if clumsily, earnestly so)
  • Helen McCloy
  • Gladys Mitchell
  • John Rhode (until after WWII)
  • Rex Stout
  • Edgar Wallace

“Tory” liberal

  • John Dickson Carr (hated the welfare state and Socialists because he thought they were against individual rights; refused to visit Buckingham Palace because his gay friends weren’t invited; almost no racial prejudice)


  • Agatha Christie

Weird kind of Labour who doesn’t like the lower classes

  • Ruth Rendell

Voted Conservative, fed up with politics

  • Edmund Crispin


  • Michael Gilbert
  • Cyril Hare
  • P.D. James

Feminist Anglo-Catholic intellectual, with odd attitude to Jews

  • Dorothy L. Sayers

Weird kind of Catholic Distributionist anti-Jew liberal who didn’t believe in evolution

  • G.K. Chesterton

Barking mad

  • Anthony Berkeley (pro-murdering people, simultaneously anti-Jew AND anti-Nazi, while Wychford Poisoning Case will give a feminist fits – what a woman needs is a damn good spanking)


  • Henry Wade


  • Josephine Bell (wrote for middle-aged, middle-brow, middle class; doesn’t like Jews, blacks, or lesbians)
  • R. Austin Freeman (have you read my tract about eugenics?)
  • Philip MacDonald (did you know that black people can be identified by their stink in the dark, and that white women who cross racial boundaries are utterly depraved murderesses?  Also proposed that capital punishment should be replaced with torture to death)
  • Carolyn Wells

Far right

  • J.J. Connington (Totalitarian)



  • Margery Allingham
  • Christianna Brand
  • Christopher Bush
  • Michael Innes


  • S.S. Van Dine

Crime in Kensington (C. St. John Sprigg)

By C. St. John Sprigg

First published: UK, Eldon, 1933; US, McVeagh / Dial Press, 1933, as Pass the Body

4 stars

With much murmuring and personal comment the crowd made way for her, until some blithe spirit at the back called out to her in fruity cockney, “Hi, miss, are you carrying away the body in that there box?”

This seemed to tickle the crowd, and somebody else shouted, “Show us the body, miss.  Be a sport.”

Mrs. Salterton-Deeley prided herself on the good-humoured savoir-faire with which she managed the lower classes.  Smiling, she snapped up the catch of the hat-box and opened the lid.

“There you are,” she said.

Inside was a severed human head; the head, in fact, of Mrs. Budge.

Sprigg - Crime in Kensington.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The English blurb promises “something very drastic in the way of thrillers”.  There’s an “atmosphere of sinister foreboding”; “gruesome and horrifying” happenings; and “a whole host of yet more sinister events”.

Nonsense!  It’s not a Poe/Carr tale of terror, slathered in Kensington gore; it’s an early version of the Innes/Crispin comedy: a detective story written by a Clever Young Man, full of comic characters and dismemberment played for laughs.

Quite simply, it’s fun.

The proprietress of a sinister hotel goes missing; she turns up strewn throughout the place.  Rest in pieces, as they say.

Possible suspects include a religious maniac; a spinster who likes cats and séances; an Egyptian medical student; and a bacteriologist who adopted the Mozarabic rite.

Young journalist Charles Venables is assigned to cover the story – and solve it before the police.  Whenever the Mercury writes about a crime in future, their public will think of them as the paper that was cleverer than the police.

Not that the police are dumb, by any means, though it does take Inspector Bray till Chapter 11 to learn what the reader has suspected from page 2.

Where the book suffers is its lack of a SURPRISE! ending.  I was onto the murderer from the very start (Chapter II).  Like a lot of British writers of the period, Sprigg wasn’t very good at concealing his criminal; Carr and Christie would have made the smart reader suspect X, while really pinning it on Y (probably the nurse).

Christie, incidentally, used the trick for concealing the body in a short story (Partners in Crime).


A very few pages of Crime in Kensington are sufficient to warn the reader that he is in for something very drastic in the way of thrillers.  The atmosphere of sinister foreboding which has settled down on the private hotel at which, on the suggestion of Lady Viola Buxley, Charles Venables has taken up his abode, the queer collection of guests – the furtive young Egyptian, the psychic and hysterical spinster, the clergyman who holds a medical degree – no the no less mysterious proprietor and proprietress, all seem to presage some peculiar and calamitous disaster.  And when something very soon does happen, something particularly gruesome and horrifying, it is only the prelude to a whole host of yet more sinister events.

For those who like their thrills in plenty, Crime in Kensington is just the thing.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (16th March 1933, 120w)

Sat R (13th May 1933, 130w):

Out of the hidden peculiarities of the Garden Hotel, seemingly so humdrum, Mr. St. John Sprigg has woven an exceedingly cunning entertainment, in which the human passions are lightly intermingled with horror and with comedy, and yet not so artificially as to seem unnatural.  [Pass the Body] is that comparatively rara avis—a detective story constructed on a basis of probability, in which the characters behave like real men and women.


NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 9th July 1933, 200w)

Sat R of Lit (15th July 1933, 30w):

Unusual tale told with zest, humour, original characters.  Love interest present but not too conspicuous.


Books (16th July 1933, 320w):

Should this brief notice meet the eye of somebody craving a pleasing enough jumble of mystery fooleries, he may be assured of acquiring same in this volume…  Mr. Sprigg isn’t so awfully experienced at writing fiction, but his tale is amusing, just the same.


Boston Transcript (9th August 1933, 200w):

The story is well written, cleverly developed and dull only now and then.

Bryant & May On the Loose and Off the Rails (Christopher Fowler)

Christopher Fowler, I’d hazard, is One of Us.

He’s written newspaper columns praising John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell, and S.S. Van Dine (as well as later writers like Peter Dickinson and H.R.F. Keating).  He’s a fan of Michael Innes, while one of his books is a nod to Edmund Crispin’s Moving Toyshop.

He laments the lack of imagination in contemporary “realistic” crime fiction, considering himself a “dissident writer … prepared to present ideas rather than pursuing false credibility.

“There are so many other crime stories to tell, farcical, tragic, contemporary and strange.  It’s time readers were allowed to discover them.”

” Golden Age mysteries frequently featured absurd, surreal crimes investigated by wonderfully eccentric sleuths.  The form was treated as something joyous and playful.”

Fowler - On Loose.jpgFowler’s own books burst with joy, playfulness, and a lively intelligence; anyone who likes the literate, imaginative detective story (from Mitchell and Innes to Hill), or Doctor Who, The Avengers, or Nebulous, should read him.

His books bring an exuberant, Golden Age baroque imaginative sensibility to contemporary London.

My favourites are the apocalyptic Water Room (2004), and Ten Second Staircase (2006), a brilliant commentary on celebrity culture and mythmaking.

His own “wonderfully eccentric sleuths” are two elderly coppers, Arthur Bryant and John May, of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, charged with investigating such “absurd, surreal crimes” as a serial killer stalking a production of Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers, man-eating tigers, and impossible disappearances.

Bryant is a cantankerous expert on the arcane; he leads tours of historical London, consults white witches, makes computers and phones melt by being in the same room, and looks for the pattern behind the crime.

May is more the straight man: an elegant technology whiz, interested in people.

But Bryant & May are finely matched.

In Bryant & May On the Loose (2009), their enemies in the Home Office have closed the PCU down after the scandalous revelations of The Victoria Vanishes.

But not for long.

The discovery of a severed head in a freezer, and sightings of what appears to be a Slavic forest god have important political ramifications.

It’s a complex, vividly told police procedural, but rather difficult to follow in parts.

Fowler - Off Rails full.jpgBryant & May Off the Rails (2010) begins as a manhunt, then turns into the sort of tight whodunit, with a small circle of suspects, all with opportunity, I really enjoy.

A psychotic killer is hiding in the Underground; and a student vanishes from a moving Tube train in the two minutes it takes to travel between two stops.  Are anarchists involved?

The solution is clever, but I’m not sure whether a reader is given enough clues to figure it out.





Coffin Underground (Gwendoline Butler)

By Gwendoline Butler

First published: UK, Collins, 1988

3 stars

Butler - Coffin Underground.jpgPeople die at No. 22, Church Row.  The cleaner mops up blood on the front stair – but the stain grows back every year.

A diplomat’s daughter buys a game in New York.  A violent criminal goes gunning for Coffin and the informer who put him away.  A chemistry student apparently commits suicide by taking potassium cyanide – but there’s no container for the poison near the body.  And a family is poisoned with potassium cyanide in the soup.

A high concept ties these disparate elements together.  It’s clever – but it’s also damn unconvincing.

Butler – 66 when her book came out – comes across as an old lady writing about a topic of which she knows nothing.





Do fantasy board games kill people?

The game in question?  Tombs & Torturers, presided over by a “Storm Master”.

Coffin discovers “a number of cases, involving both sexes and spanning the age range of 12 to 20, dealing with suicides, murders and rapes connected with violent fantasy games.  It made for disquieting reading.”

It’s a very 1980s fear.  Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1974, four years before Butler’s novel is set.  Evangelical Christians and others with a tenuous hold on reality panicked that RPGs caused teenagers to kill others, or commit suicide, or that they “opened up young people to influence or possession by demons”.  (See here and here.)

I’ve played the occasional RPG, and haven’t had any strong desire to conjure up succubi and incubi, eat corpses, or hack my nearest and dearest to bits.

(And how can anyone believe in demons?)


The year is 1978, the place South London, the area that by the river at Greenwich which has been the scene of earlier investigations by detective John Coffin.  Now he is back, a senior and much respected police officer, called home in charge of his own small team of detectives.  He has been handed the task of overseeing the local detective branch and of bringing it up to maximum efficiency.  Like all men of strong character, he has his critics and his enemies, and he knows that this job will arouse hostility.  It may lead to yet higher promotion, but for the time being he must work underground.

But even as he embarks on the job, he is involved in a series of violent happenings which have their roots in the past but take their terrible form from an early manifestation of a very contemporary phenomenon.

The brutality of the crimes which follow springs from a fantasy world of games.  But these games are deadly, played out according to rules by masters, acolytes – and victims, and Coffin finds himself caught up in one for whose climax he is totally unprepared.

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth


So Doctor Who is now a Time Lady.

Jodie Whittaker’s casting has been hailed, as Xavier points out, as a great blow for female emancipation in some quarters, and with horror in others.

I don’t really care whether Jodie Whittaker is the first female Doctor Who.  It’s been mooted since the ’80s – Tom Baker suggested it in jest, and creator Sydney Newman in earnest.

Both sides (a woman Dr Who is a triumph for feminism! / the BBC’s insidious homosexual liberal agenda is corrupting our youth!) irritate. Besides, identity politics are reductive and divisive; ability and character should matter, not skin colour, chromosomes, or sexual orientation.

The important question, then, is whether Whittaker’s good in the role.

She’s likeable and fun.  She’s also a safe choice: a scripted zany, rather like Tennant, Smith, or the later Capaldi, but rather diffident, empathetic.  I’d have liked, really, to see someone more formidably eccentric – a Beatrix Lehmann, Sylvia Coleridge, Mary Morris, Elizabeth Spriggs type.

Actually, Sharon D. Clarke, playing Grace, the black granny, would have made a good Doctor.  She has warmth, intelligence, and presence.

As for the story…  It looks pretty.  The script, though, is generic – like Power Rangers, only with better characterization.  Males, worryingly, are incompetent – cowardly, curmudgeonly, or homicidal.  Chibnall is also prone to big mission statements.

I liked Moffat more than Davies, but had problems with both. RTD was often cheesy emotional, and used the story to hang big emotional setpieces on. (I couldn’t stand Tennant, either.) Moffat’s Dr. Who was insular, more interested in series mythology and fetishizing the Doctor than in exploring the universe, and asking questions. He wrote some really clever episodes, though, and I enjoyed the last two seasons (especially “Heaven Sent” and the run with Bill).

Chibnall’s Dr. Who credentials include 42 (bad), The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and The Power of Three (all mediocre), plus the abysmal Torchwood.  That’s not a promising pedigree.  This might be like Nicholas Briggs taking over the helm of Big Finish from Gary Russell, when an inventive, imaginative range settled for merely competent.

(When was the last really great Dr. Who audio play?  It can’t have been Night Thoughts and The Kingmaker, all the way back in 2006, surely?)

Dr. Who shouldn’t do “competent”; it should be rich and strange and mad.  (Anybody remotely interesting is mad, in some way or another.)

It’s practically its own genre. It’s at the intersection of B-movie, avant garde theatre, rep Shakespeare and absurdist comedy.

On one level, it’s an exciting adventure show that mixes horror with high comedy, sending impressionable youngsters hurtling behind the sofa, while older viewers laugh at the Doctor’s wit.

On another, it is (to the horror of moralists like Mary Whitehouse) liberal humanist propaganda (with a side order of strangulation by obscene vegetable matter), in which the hero wins the day by being curious, asking questions, and challenging bureaucracy and authority.

On another, it is an intellectual comedy that deals in social satire, hard science and high end physics, evolutionary theory, Buddhist parables, and cultural relativism.

While having taxmen made of seaweed, dangerous monsters that decompose into narcotics, executioners made of liquorice allsorts, and alien criminal masterminds with six copies of the Mona Lisa in their cellar (with “This is a fake” written in felt pen).

And a madman in a box who lands in someone else’s story and warps the narrative around him.

The TARDIS doesn’t just travel in time and space; it travels in story. One story might show the Doctor land in a Shakespearean drama; the next, Hammer Horror or a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu; after that, a hard SF story rewritten by Tom Stoppard, or The Prisoner of Zenda with androids.

The show is, as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor observed, serious about what it does, not about the way it does it. As script editor Douglas Adams (yes, of H2GT2G fame) said, the programme is “complex enough for the kids to enjoy, and simple enough for the adults to follow”’.

Unsurprisingly, I lean much more towards rad than trad, and frock than gun.  My favourite TV story is Ghost Light.  My favourite Dr. Who writers include Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams, Donald Cotton, Lawrence Miles, Dave Stone, and Paul Magrs, with a dash of Paul Cornell, Jim Mortimore, and (of course) Terrance Dicks.  (If you understand that paragraph, drop me a line.)



Julian Symons: An overview

Prompted by the Puzzle Doctor’s review of The Colour of Murder

Julian Symons’s works are primarily anti-detective stories, closer to Kafka than Christie.

(Note: There are a handful of successful orthodox works – for instance, Bland Beginning and The Plot Against Roger Rider.)

Symons is concerned with power, irrationality, “the violence behind respectable faces” (in John M. Reilly, Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers.  New York: St Martin’s Press, 1980), and the relation of the individual to an inhumane and uncaring society (Larry E. Grimes, “Julian Symons”, in Earl F. Bargainnier, Twelve Englishmen of Mystery, 1984Grimes, 1984).

Symons’s work is at once Absurdist, full of surreal imagery and symbols, and Naturalist, with suburban settings, sexual psychology, and realistic crime.  The protagonist is often ineffectual or a miserable failure (Symons thought he was too fond of ‘weedy’ characters); his fantasies starkly contrast with the harshness of reality; and he either discovers or loses his identity.

For Symons’s admirers, such as Grimes, his work is comedy, “marked by a realistic treatment of character and scene, a coherent and consistent view of self and society, and a penetrating analysis of the relation of masks, dream, game and fantasy to life in a systematised, sanitised, urbanised world”.

To his detractors, Symons is Julian the Apostate, the man whose views on the superiority of the crime novel to the detective story have influenced almost every critic since.

From the detective story to the crime novel

Symons’ history of the genre (Bloody Murder, 1974) is teleological.  The inferior detective story, an artificial puzzle without character or theme, developed into the superior crime novel, “a bag of literary all sorts ranging from comedy to tragedy, from realistic portraits of society to psychological investigation of an individual”.

The form began in the 19th century with Gaboriau and Fortuné du Boisgobey in France, Edgar Allan Poe in America, and Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens in Britain.  The detective story reached its first peak with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in 1887.  Doyle was followed in the Edwardian period by G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, and A.E.W. Mason, all of whom were good stylists.

Then came the Great War, and the detective story degenerated into an artificial puzzle, written by boring writers such as R. Austin Freeman or Freeman Wills Crofts, whom Symons dubbed the ‘Humdrums’.  These writers were popular in the 1920s, and all was gloom and despair.

Even flashier writers like Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen were more concerned with plot construction and ingenuity than with realism, social commentary, or psychology.  Because these writers were only interested in the problem, their books were artificial and trivial—in short, sub-literary.

“The characteristic detective story has almost no literary merit, [but] may still be an ingenious, cunningly deceptive and finely constructed piece of work.”

“To abjure voluntarily the interplay of character and the force of passion was eventually to reduce this kind of detective story to the level of a crossword puzzle, which can be solved but not read, to cause satiety in the writers themselves, and to breed a rebellion which came sooner than has been acknowledged.”

The only hope came from Anthony Berkeley (Cox).  Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932), groundbreaking crime novels published as Francis Iles, would provide a model for future writers.

Some writers—Margery Allingham, Nicholas Blake, Ngaio Marsh, and Michael Innes—attempted to bring new life to the moribund genre by emphasising character, style and storytelling.  Nevertheless, they were still concerned with plot, however humanised.

All they managed to do, as Wagner said of Rossini, was to give a corpse a semblance of life, making its ghastly cadaver bloom with roses, while worms and maggots devoured it.

The detective story was still dead.

The Golden Age was not the main highway of crime fiction that it looked at the time, but a minor road full of interesting twists and views which petered out in a dead end.

Instead of entertainments for tired businessmen and their wives, a new approach was needed that preserved the crime element but emphasised social commentary, psychology, politics, and philosophy.

Fortunately, WWII came along.  The war exposed the detective story’s basic assumption that “human affairs are ruled by reason” and “crimes were committed by individuals, small holes torn in the fabric of society” as illusion.

Instead, writers realised that “a different world existed, one in which force was supreme and in which irrational doctrines ruled more than one nation”.

Reason, objectivity, and the search for truth had been exposed as shams.

The detective story was buried, and writers produced crime novels instead, in which there was far more emphasis on emotional states (chiefly angst and guilt), philosophy, and social commentary (ideally Existentialist or Marxist), and less of this tedious plotting and clueing.  Hurrah!

To sum up: In the detective story, the problem is more important than or excludes characterisation, atmosphere or setting.  It is politically conservative with no interest in a theme: “the detective and the puzzle are the only things that stay in the memory”.

In the crime novel, characters are more important than story; atmosphere and setting are emphasised; the attitude is often “radical in the sense of questioning some aspect of law, justice, or the way society is run”; and characters and situation are memorable.

Symons, Grimes argues, “effectively adapted crime literature to the purpose of radical social critique while pushing the genre into the realm of serious literature.”  Does he, and, if so, is this a good thing?  What effect did Symons’s reforms have on the genre?

Xavier Lechard suggests that, until Symons, the detective story was seen as tree bearing many different sorts of fruit.  Critics might prefer Carr to Crofts, Hammett to Christie, but they nevertheless respected them, and were aware of their importance to the genre.

Symons’ effect on the detective story was the same as Wagner’s on opera: everything was judged by the standards of the Artwork of the Future, and those who had different aesthetic standards were banished from the artistic canon.

Under the influence of Symons’s triumphalist propaganda, the history of the detective story—an understanding of the development of the various schools, and the influence, for instance, of Freeman, Crofts, Bailey, and Mason on Christie, Carr, and Queen—was lost.

The wheel has turned, however. . The recent effort of critics like Mike Grost, Curtis Evans, and Martin Edwards suggests that the future of detective fiction criticism lies not in a “narrowing circle”, but in establishing the history of the genre, and in reestablishing reputations.


Perhaps Symons’s hostility to the genre comes from the fact that he was not a very good plotter; the plots are often cluttered and chaotic, or the solutions are arbitrary, which may reflect his belief that we live in a chaotic world.

Many of the endings are ambiguous.  It is often unclear whether the detective has solved the mystery: either the evidence on which the detective bases his solution is wrong, or else equally tenable solutions are proposed without any indication which is the right one.

Finding out the truth can have disastrous consequences: the protagonist of The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple (1985) will be murdered by the people whom he accuses, while in The Blackheath Poisonings (1978), SPOILER the boy Paul is both detective and murderer: his investigations do harm, leading to his aunt Irene’s arrest; to secure her release, he poisons the murderer, which may represent the destructive role of the detective, who is not only a discoverer of truth but an executioner, inasmuch as Great Detectives bring guilty people to the gallows.  The restoration of order that Symons perceives as a hallmark of the conventional detective story is either absent or subverted.

The classic example is The 31st of February (1950), in which the protagonist Anderson loses his faith in reason; order is represented by Inspector Chesse, who persecutes Anderson and drives him mad.  The investigating policeman is menace, not saviour, and builds his seemingly logical case on a ‘clue’ that is ultimately misleading.  It is, therefore, both an indictment of the detective story’s emphasis on reason, and a philosophical nightmare that examines the dissociation of identity, alienation, and failed attempts to impose meaning and order on a disordered and ultimately meaningless existence.

Nihilism recurs throughout Symons’s work.  A young couple dream of owning a caravan but are ruined in The Narrowing Circle (1954) by a lack of free will and choice; the investigators in The Progress of a Crime (1960) are not concerned with justice and the search for truth, but either with making a case stick or creating a media story.

Realism and fantasy

Symons also believed that the crime novel had to become realistic to be literary (Grimes, 1984); for this reason, reality destroys imagination and fantasy.

Perhaps the supreme example is The Man Whose Dreams Came True (1968), a downbeat, depressing story, in which nasty things happen to the idealistic hero until he dies, no doubt an expression of the human condition.

Similarly, A Three Pipe Problem (1975) is not so much a Sherlock Holmes pastiche as a rebuttal of late nineteenth century Romanticism.  Because Symons was philosophically opposed to Great Detectives, the actor playing Holmes who tries to use Holmes’s methods to solve a series of murders is a pathetic figure of fun; he solves the mystery, but more through inept bumbling than through genius.  Symons subverts the grandeur and vitality of Doyle, presenting 1970s London as a drab and sordid place full of gangsters, prostitutes, lowlifes, and motor cars.

Coffin in Fashion (Gwendoline Butler)

By Gwendoline Butler

First published: UK, Collins, 1987; USA, Thomas Dunne Books

4 stars

Butler - Coffin in Fashion“The murders in Mouncy Street with boys, drugs, sadism had been thoroughly fashionable crime, really Sixties.”

It’s 1966 – the height of Cool Britannia.  The Beatles are bigger than Jesus; miniskirts are on the rise; and LSD has hit the streets.

Sergeant Coffin is led into the Swinging world of designers, models, and photographers (see Blowup).

He buys his first house – and there’s a dead boy under the floorboards.  Another teenager is missing, and the trail leads to Rose Hilaire’s fashion shop Belmodes.  Could the beautiful Rose, or her strange son have sexually assaulted and strangled three boys?

Coffin in Fashion is a stronger mystery than Coffin on Water, the first of her historical Coffins.  It’s a look into an industry (in the line of Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise or Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds) coupled with a late 20th century serial killer story.

The murderer(s) are well concealed (more so than Water, whose solution is revealed offhandedly here).

Butler, a historian, suggests that the killings are the result of the times.

Kids grow up in World War II hearing of “acceptable violence because that was what war was. Taken in with his bottle of National Dried Milk and vitamin drops that it was all right to kill.”

Young people lived with the fear of the Bomb; feeling they might be killed at any moment, they indulged themselves.  After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Coffin insisted that he sleep with the girl he was attracted to (who was seeing his friend at the same time), while another girl tried on a fur coat she wasn’t going to buy.

These, Butler suggests, are relatively innocuous.  Others assault children, or murder.

The sexual revolution had its dark side.  (I wrote my History Honours thesis on the BBC in the ’60s and changing moral attitudes.)  While the pill, no-fault divorce, and the decriminalization of homosexuality were all good, some people were pushing for the legalization of paedophilia and bestiality.  Sadism and “kinky” sex were widely practiced in certain circles, including the Establishment – see Lord Denning’s report into the Profumo affair.



Publishers Weekly (January 1988):

Butler (Coffin on the Water ) here recalls the 1960s, when Scotland Yard’s eminent Detective John Coffin was a mere sergeant.  Anticipating a promotion, he now buys a house that needs repairs and proves a catalyst to dire events.  Workmen find the body of an adolescent boy under the floor – and Coffin, though it’s not his case, keeps up with an investigation that comes to center on his own neighbors.  Attracted to Rose Hilaire, the sergeant learns that her son was a friend of the murder victim and of other missing boys.  Rose’s troubles multiply as she fights to protect her son and her dress factory, hard-won after years of poverty.  The business is threatened not only by scandal but by Rose’s designer, Gaby Glass, who schemes to take off with her creations.  Darting into odd corners, this mystery is a corker, filled with richly atmospheric scenes of London in the “age of Aquarius” as experienced by Coffin and the rest of Butler’s well-realized characters.


Coffin on the Water (Gwendoline Butler)

By Gwendoline Butler

First published: UK, Collins, 1986; USA, Minotaur

4 stars

I’ve meant to read Gwendoline Butler for a long time.

“Her inventiveness never seems to flag; and the singular atmosphere of her books, compounded of jauntiness and menace, remains undiminished,” critic Patricia Craig wrote in the TLS.

Craig was a Gladys Mitchell enthusiast, and another review (on the old Tangled Web site?) 20 years ago compared Butler’s outré, darkly imaginative mysteries to Gladys Mitchell.

Coffin on the Water is apparently Butler’s first book to feature her series policeman John Coffin after a gap of 12 years. It’s also the earliest chronologically of Coffin’s cases.

Young Detective Constable Coffin is stationed in Greenwich in 1946.  Ex-actress Rachel Esthart has become a recluse after the death of her son; rumour accuses her of killing the child, while she believes he is not dead, and will return.  The mutilated bodies of young women float up the river – attached to each one, a card: A present for my mother…

The HarperCollins reprint (available on Kindle) calls the book “a gripping crime novel from one of the most universally praised English mystery writers, perfect for fans of Agatha Christie”.

Mitchell or Allingham would be better comparisons.  The mystery is rather lightweight, and the solution isn’t, I think, meant to be a surprise.  Butler hints by Coffin’s reactions what he suspects and fears, so it’s clear from early on that X is probably one of two people.

Where Butler excels is atmosphere.  Like her elders, she’s a generous writer, good at vivid descriptions of unusual people (grande dames, landladies, young stars, truant schoolboys), and at describing the seedy East End, with its theatre, Italian restaurants, docks, and black markets.  (Think of Sunset over Soho, The Rising of the Moon, or Coroner’s Pidgin.)

Butler resurrects post-war London in detail.  Her father was a Thames waterman and lighterman, so she knows the river well.  She also taught history at Oxford (and married the professor of medieval history at St Andrew’s), so brings a scholar’s eye to comment on the period.  The crimes, she suggests, are the result of the war, which “had opened minds to strangeness and wildness in the world”.

I’ve acquired a baker’s dozen of her works, and look forward to reading more of her stories. Any opinions on her work, O reader?


‘John Coffin’s baptismal case on demob . . . dispenses a thick gnomic atmosphere of obsession and doom.’ Christopher Wordsworth, Observer
‘Bodies in the river, anonymous letters, eccentric characters with stage and dockland associations, lots of local colour and contemporary detail help end the densely packed plot. It’s splendid stuff.’ F.E. Pardoe, Birmingham Post
‘Interesting and original characters are depicted against an impressionistic, atmospheric background of late 1940s London.’ T.J. Binyon, The Times Literary Supplement
‘Combines a credible quest for a killer with a memorable word picture of the way in which a community has had its attitudes to life and death shaped by the horrors of war.’ Bolton Evening News
‘Delightful to have a new book from Gwendoline Butler about Coffin, her South London detective.’ Marghanita Laski; Listener

Kirkus (21 February 1989):

Butler (Albion Walk, 1982, etc.) sets her latest in postwar London of 1946, sharply evoking the bombed, still-rationed city of the period and introducing detective-constable John Coffin – eager to make a career with Scotland Yard and now assigned to the Greenwich district with fellow rookie Alec Rowley, under Inspector Tom Banbury.  Both Coffin and Rowley are attracted to Stella Pinero, a promising actress who has just joined the Theatre Royal repertory company, run by old pros Joan and Albie Delaney – who send Stella to live in Angel House, owned by Rachel Esthart, one-time theater great, now a semi-recluse in the wake of long-ago personal tragedy.  Then, when the butchered body of young teacher Lorna Beezley is pulled from the river, there seems to be a connection to Rachel – but when two more similarly mutilated victims appear over the weeks, Coffin begins to have doubts.  So, kept on the investigation’s far edge by Banbury and other superiors, Coffin sleuths on his own, pondering the significance of black-market shoes; his conversations with the river men; leads provided by nosy, precocious schoolboy Paul Shanks; and a spill of wine in the restaurant run by ex-fellow soldier Vic Padovani.  Tension builds slowly but firmly in a cleverly plotted, carefully crafted story that sometimes meanders in a way that seems artless but isn’t.  Solid fare for fans of the leisurely British traditional.


Publisher’s Weekly (February 1989):

British writer Butler has crafted a grim tale that unsuccessfully blends murder with social commentary.  In 1946, newly promoted detective-constable John Coffin arrives in Greenwich to take up his post.  Soon after, the body of a young woman floats down the Thames to South London.  It quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary murder: the victim has been strangled, stabbed and mutilated.  Attached to the body is a note reading “Present for my mother,”’ a reference to former actress Rachel Esthart, whose son drowned under mysterious circumstances 17 years previously, and who has just received a postcard promising an imminent gift from the boy, whose death she has never acknowledged.  Then two other bodies are found in the river, murdered in the same brutal way.  There is no shortage of suspects, among them: a famous actor who was in love with Rachel; the co-owner of the Theatre Royal; the theater’s stage manager; and an ex-army mate of Coffin’s who is a black marketeer.  Coffin’s investigation of the murders is complicated by a missing-child case and his own personal search for an unknown sibling.  While interesting for its meticulously detailed picture of bleak post-World War II England, the novel’s appeal is severely limited by an intrusive, off-putting narrative voice. (Feb.)